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Luke 16:19-31 – The rich man and Lazarus

Another wisdom story contrasting two men and two ways – a rich man and a poor man.

In the context the rich man represents the Pharisees. Jesus has just condemned the Pharisees as lovers of money. He has referred to the love of money as an idolatrous abomination in the sight of God. The Pharisees do not see themselves this way at all. They argue that their wealth is an indication of God’s approval for their obedience to the law and the prophets. It is this clash of viewpoints that Jesus speaks to in the parable.

The rich man is clothed in expensive purple and fine linen and hosts a daily feast. Jesus has earlier spoken of Pharisee feasts as a place where people seek places that highlight their own honour. Guests at such feasts are based on an honour system involving family, friends, clients and patrons.

The poor man is named Lazarus (his name means “God helps”). Lazarus is a lame beggar at the rich man’s gates. He is covered in unclean sores and desires to eat the food scraps thrown to the dogs at the rich man’s gates. However, when he dies, he is “carried by the angels to Abraham’s side” – he is a son of Abraham!

The rich man, who like the Pharisees, viewed himself as favored by God is found experience the torment of God’s judgment in Hades.

Ironically, he requests that Lazarus be sent to serve him his basic desire for water – he still views Lazarus as socially inferior, merely a slave. His request is denied. Lazarus is now comforted, and the tables have been turned. The full have been sent away empty while the hungry and filled – recall Mary’s Song at the beginning of the gospel – a great reversal has taken place that cannot be altered.

Interestingly, the rich man begs that Lazarus be raised from the dead and sent to his brothers to warn them. Notice that the rich man is still engaged in the world’s social values – Lazarus is to serve the rich man’s familial social obligations. As the rich man denied Lazarus’ begging, so now Abraham denies the rich man’s begging.

His brothers need simply listen to the Law and the Prophets, that is, they need to hear and obey the Law and the Prophets. But the rich man, and presumably his five brothers who once feasted with him, have failed to hear and obey as is evident in their neglect of the poor at their gate (a major concern of the Law and the Prophets). Thus while claiming to be experiencing the blessing of God for obedience it has been demonstrated that they in fact disobey the Law.

Not content with Abraham’s statement that they have enough testimony to respond to God in the Law, the rich man claims that it is not enough. He argues the evidence of a man being raised from the dead would be able to convince their hard hearts. Abraham’s final word is that is they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.

The rich man and his brothers being an illustration of the Pharisees indicates that the Pharisees disobey the Law they claim to obey – in their love of money, their seeking to justify themselves in the sight of men and their neglect of the poor. Clearly the hardness of the Pharisees will not be altered even when they see the evidence of God raising a dead man, that is, the resurrection of Jesus.

The application of the wisdom story is do not be a Pharisee. And if you are one not comforted in this life then know ‘God helps’ (Lazarus).